Nancy Drew Adventures: How Video Games Rescued a Literary Feminist Icon

Nancy Drew has always been more than the sum of her blue-eyed, titian-haired parts. The original Nancy Drew Mysteries were the creation of Mildred Wirt of the Stratemeyer syndicate in 1930, a response to the tremendous popularity of the Hardy Boys series.

And while the books themselves are highly formulaic, deriving from adventure and mystery stories that were popular from the 1880s on, Nancy immediately emerged as a vivid, compelling character in a way that none of her predecessors did, a competent teenage sleuth who drives about in her roadster solving mysteries with the help of her girlfriends George and Bess. Her boyfriend Ned and father Carson show up occasionally, but are as likely to need rescuing as to provide any valuable assistance.

Commanding Nancy has no qualms about giving orders to the police of various nations, and in general is obeyed with (truly alarming) meekness by those officials. She’s basically an American—and less libidinous—Miss Fisher.

But such an idyllic state of affairs couldn’t persist. The Nancy Drew Mysteries that readers buy today were revised in the 1950s to deal with the problem of Nancy’s “too bold and bossy” personality. The Nancy most of us know today—Nancy who helps the housekeeper with the dishes, meekly asks permission from her father and other adults for her activities, and modestly disclaims all compliments—is the result of these revisions, and while facsimile editions of the original 1930s mysteries have been produced, they are mostly out of print and difficult to find in contrast to the ubiquitous yellow-covered series.

The feminist Nancy who first stepped out of the pages nearly a hundred years ago is all but lost to us.

Enter Her Interactive and the Nancy Drew Adventure games. Her Interactive is led by a female CEO and employs a high proportion of female developers in creating the Nancy Drew Adventures. They’ve always been on a mission to provide “intelligent” adventure games for girls, and their latest venture is the Nancy Drew Codes and Clues game for mobile, which helps girls develop STEM and coding skills.

The Adventure games, of which there are more now than thirty, feature a variety of exotic settings and assignments, fantastic voice acting and nuanced storylines, with plenty of brain-breaking puzzles. They’re a breath of fresh air for modern women, who may cringe at the literary Nancy’s penchants for playing dress-up and cultural appropriation—her trip to Arizona involved the purchase of a “squaw dress,” after all, and she’s always immaculately fashionable. But when Her Interactive’s Nancy visits Japan in Shadow at the Water’s Edge, there’s nary a kimono to be seen, nor does Nancy seem to have any particular desire to play geisha. When Nancy does interact with a fashion-forward young Japanese woman, her own fashion sense gets dissed.

Clearly this Nancy has more to do than press her powder blue linen suits!

Nancy’s sidekicks are more developed in the adventures as well. George, in addition to her traditional judo skills, has a strong technological bent. Bess is still the mildly frivolous, fashionable gourmand she has always been, but gone are the troubling fat-shaming tropes that litter the books.

Indeed, in Danger by Design, a fashion-oriented adventure, Nancy is recruited by a plus-size designer, and one of her tasks is to bake cookies to help plus-size supermodel JJ Ling keep her weight up. No crude jokes, no nudges and winks, just beautiful, large women making their mark on the world. This is the kind of body positivity our society desperately needs to counteract the unhealthy standards of beauty that hurt so many women.

The games are entirely presented in a first-person view, which allows players to look through Nancy rather than at her. This simple choice creates a dramatic change in the character, from an object of (often cloying) admiration to a woman who does-who cracks codes, defuses bombs, and deciphers hieroglyphs. The games allow every girl (or adventure lover of any age or gender) to fully inhabit Nancy while demonstrating and developing skills in language, logic, history and culture through puzzle-solving.

And make no mistake, these aren’t easy puzzles. I chose Junior Sleuth (the easier mode) for my first foray into the games, and I was startled by the complexity and difficulty of the puzzles. I consider myself respectably intelligent, but I spent hours solving an enormous sudoku puzzle. If I’d chosen Senior Sleuth, I’m pretty sure I’d be staring at that screen until some benevolent soul pulled out the power cord.

This is the Nancy we’ve always wanted, and while I’ll never lose my affection for the titian-haired “girl detective” who knits sweaters for Dad in between accumulating truly disturbing numbers of bumps on the head, Her Interactive has taken a beloved franchise and made it genuinely empowering and educational for today’s young women. They’ve stripped away the idealization and domestication, returning Nancy to her “bold and bossy” roots, and the result is a series of games that empowers young women with positive messages and skills to succeed in the twenty-first century.

Sophie Weeks
Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Sophie Weeks received a Masters degree in English Literature from Mills College in 2006 and completed her PhD in Victorian Literature at Rice University in 2013. She is the author of Outside the Spotlight, Unsettled Spirits, and The Soured Earth.

Sophie Weeks
Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Sophie Weeks received a Masters degree in English Literature from Mills College in 2006 and completed her PhD in Victorian Literature at Rice University in 2013. She is the author of Outside the Spotlight, Unsettled Spirits, and The Soured Earth.

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